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Uzor Arukwe hates Nollywood filmmakers casting actors based on Instagram followers

The actor who plays lead in Criminal says that casting should be based on talent and not followers.

Uzor Arukwe [Instagram/Uzor.Arukwe]

Now he would spend the rest of his day doing promotional work – videos for social media, interviews with the press – for Criminal. He wore striking pink Valentino slides.

In Criminal, Arukwe played an ex-convict, who leads a gang of criminals, played by Chuks Joseph, Bryan Okoye and Austin Onuoha, to hold a hospital hostage. It's the kind of film that gets his blood pumping. He loved the character so much that during a heated debate with the cast, he insisted there was no bullying within their ranks. “Maybe I'm still thinking as the character,” he later said.

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As a theatre-trained actor, he is one of the few A-list male performers who didn’t transition to cinema and TV from a career as a model. All he had was his talent at a time when the industry desperately needed numbers. People had begun to invest more in Nollywood and producers wanted to prove to investors they could get returns on their investments.

I remember all so clearly when I started. It was a big problem for me,” he said.

There was a time in this industry when it was mostly about Instagram and Twitter followers, and stuff like that. I didn't understand it but knew it was something I had to be at peace with, because a production house wants to hire you and they’re looking at your numbers. ‘But can he act?’ That is the question I always ask. But there are some people who are blessed who are fantastic actors who have numbers and they’ve been doing well.

After he played Toke Makinwa’s husband in Sugar Rush (2019), the doors to the big league opened. He featured in Prophetess (2021), The Set Up 2 (2022), and A Tribe Called Judah (2023), Nollywood’s highest-grossing film of all time. “It's been really tough. But I love the job too much,” he said.

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In an industry where actors can become obscure just as quickly as they become famous, Arukwe doesn't worry about relevance. “I don’t, to be fair. I only care about performance. I feel like if I can give value, if I can give a really good performance, people will always come to me, regardless of whatever is happening. I might not be buzzing at the time, but my time will always come. That’s how I see it,” he said.

Arukwe is now 40, but he has been able to stay in the industry without any scandals, not even a social media drag, a public misstep, call out from a co-star or an ex-girlfriend.

I’m sure I’ve made some bad choices that are just not out there. I'm a very reserved guy. I try to just live my life. But if it happens tomorrow, it wouldn’t stop me,” he said.

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Over the years Nollywood has grown from a tiny market churning out hundreds of low-budget content weekly, to a beast netting millions of dollars in cinema ticket sales yearly, and submitting work for the Oscars.

It’s still not there yet, but the attention on the industry from the global north has forced actors to abandon old tropes of archetypal performances and embody their characters more. Arukwe is excited about this, but he doesn't want the industry to become infested by method acting.

I always tell people that it’s not every film that you have to use method. I don't even think that method is a good technique for acting. But depending on the scene I might use method and use mostly listening and responding in the other scene,” he said.

It can be a narcissistic style of performance. The thing about method actors is they are not the nicest of colleagues on set. Imagine if I'm playing a brute and I come on set, it's a very unrealistic form. Method acting takes a lot of homework. You’re absorbing this person for months.”

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But away from method acting, the industry, and its obsession with numbers, Criminal, and even this interview, Arukwe has bigger fish to fry. He wants to do a Hollywood film.

I think everybody has a dream to do something in Hollywood. That’s one of the reasons I started doing this in the first place. The next phase for me will be to do some big collaborations with Hollywood. Even if it's not Hollywood, South Africa, or England. You know some major films, classics that will transcend time,” he said.

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